It was 1976. Judith Guest had recently moved to Edina and looked to the Newcomers’ Club for opportunities to become connected. Guest and other new-on-the-block book lovers were encouraged to sign up for Newcomers’ “alternate” book club that met at night. “You have to remember,” says Guest, who turned 80 this year, “most women didn’t work during the day. So the daytime book club was fairly full.” The evening book club, by contrast, was desperate for members. Guest and several other women joined. “We called ourselves ‘The Desperates,’” she recalls with a laugh. A hearty, heartfelt laugh, one which clearly characterizes the open, friendly and celebrated author of Ordinary People (celebrating its 35th anniversary as a movie this year).
The dozen or so “Desperate Book Club” members continued to meet, adding new book club members off and on, for the next forty years. “Once a month, second Tuesday,” says Guest. Activities branched out beyond books. Guest describes weekends away at members’ cabins, often culminating in their husbands joining them for a final day or meal. “We had several wild progressive dinners as well, not that people do those much anymore,” she recalls. Now there are some book club members who winter in Florida, and Guest spends most of the summer in a cabin in Michigan. But book club members still get together to talk about books. Earlier this year they read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which Guest enjoyed. “We used to read a lot of John Updike,” she adds, “and it’s funny how now we see him as such a misogynist. We’ve often talked about how book club has changed us.” Longtime member Colleen Miner calls the book club “the source of my oldest, dearest friendships. I think it was kismet that we all found each other.” Member and writer in her own right, Betty McGarry, who in 2013 commemorated the book club’s long history in a program celebrating Edina’s 125th anniversary, adds, “Having a home for an intellectual life was a wonderful gift. We came for the intellectual life, but we forged friendships.”
Regarding another anniversary, 35 years, of the movie-version of Guest’s first novel, Ordinary People, Guest’s initial response is, “Has it really been that long?” and not, for example, that the movie was nominated for six Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture and Best Writing in an Adapted Screenplay. Guest didn’t actually write the screenplay, but says first-time director Robert Redford “was great. He sent me the first draft of the screenplay and wrote, ‘Judy, feel free to wail.’ I didn’t need to wail much.” On the rare occasion Guest did have a problem with the script, she explains how she and Redford “would go in a room and sit down and talk. “No, you’re not hearing it right,” he might say, before he acted out a part just for her, so that she would know how it would play. In summary: the whole experience was “great fun.”
Guest’s writing is still going strong. “I started a new novel last week. I’m calling it Birthday Novel” in celebration of her 80th. She’s also working with a Los Angeles producer on a TV serialization of a novel she published in 2004, The Tarnished Eye. “It’s a murder mystery based on a true story that happened 40 years ago. An entire family was murdered at their cottage in Michigan. No one ever got to the bottom of it, so I wrote the book to solve the mystery.” The TV show may come to include Guest’s sequel to The Tarnished Eye, a book called White in the Moon.
Despite fame and the likely ability to live anywhere, what Guest loves most about Edina is her friends and her house, she says. Although she lost her husband seven years ago, she resisted her children’s suggestions to move. “One of my best friends in the book club lives right next door,” she says. “We made a pact: we’re both going to stay right here.”